THE ALTAR FIRE
ARTHUR CHRISTOPHER BENSON
Cecidit autem ignis Domini, et voravit holocaustum
It will perhaps be said, and truly felt, that the following is a morbid book. No doubt the subject is a morbid one, because the book deliberately gives a picture of a diseased spirit. But a pathological treatise, dealing with cancer or paralysis, is not necessarily morbid, though it may be studied in a morbid mood. We have learnt of late years, to our gain and profit, to think and speak of bodily ailments as natural phenomena, not to slur over them and hide them away in attics and bedrooms. We no longer think of insanity as demoniacal possession, and we no longer immure people with diseased brains in the secluded apartments of lovely houses. But we still tend to think of the sufferings of the heart and soul as if they were unreal, imaginary, hypochondriacal things, which could be cured by a little resolution and by intercourse with cheerful society; and by this foolish and secretive reticence we lose both sympathy and help. Mrs. Proctor, the friend of Carlyle and Lamb, a brilliant and somewhat stoical lady, is recorded to have said to a youthful relative of a sickly habit, with stern emphasis, "Never tell people how you are! They don't want to know." Up to a certain point this is shrewd and wholesome advice. One does undoubtedly keep some kinds of suffering in check by resolutely minimising them. But there is a significance in suffering too. It is not all a clumsy error, a well-meaning blunder. It is a deliberate part of the constitution of the world.
Why should we wish to conceal the fact that we have suffered, that we suffer, that we are likely to suffer to the end? There are abundance of people in like case; the very confession of the fact may help others to endure, because one of the darkest miseries of suffering is the horrible sense of isolation that it brings. And if this book casts the least ray upon the sad problem—a ray of the light that I have learned to recognise is truly there—I shall be more than content. There is no morbidity in suffering, or in confessing that one suffers. Morbidity only begins when one acquiesces in suffering as being incurable and inevitable; and the motive of this book is to show that it is at once curative and curable, a very tender part of a wholly loving and Fatherly design.
A. C. B.
Magdalene College, Cambridge,
July 14, 1907.
I had intended to allow the records that follow—the records of a pilgrimage sorely beset and hampered by sorrow and distress—to speak for themselves. Let me only say that one who makes public a record so intimate and outspoken incurs, as a rule, a certain responsibility. He has to consider in the first place, or at least he cannot help instinctively considering, what the wishes of the writer would have been on the subject. I do not mean that one who has to decide such a point is bound to be entirely guided by that. He must weigh the possible value of the record to other spirits against what he thinks that the writer himself would have personally desired. A far more important consideration is what living people who play a part in such records feel about their publication. But I cannot help thinking that our whole standard in such matters is a very false and conventional one. Supposing, for instance, that a very sacred and intimate record, say, two hundred years old, were to be found among some family papers, it is inconceivable that any one would object to its publication on the ground that the writer of it, or the people mentioned in it, would not have wished it to see the light. We show how weak our faith really is in the continuance of personal identity after death, by allowing the lapse of time to affect the question at all; just as we should consider it a horrible profanation to exhume and exhibit the body of a man who had been buried a few years ago, while we approve of the action of archaeologists who explore Egyptian sepulchres, subscribe to their operations, and should consider a man a mere sentimentalist who suggested that the mummies exhibited in museums ought to be sent back for interment in their original tombs. We think vaguely that a man who died a few years ago would in some way be outraged if his body were to be publicly displayed, while we do not for an instant regard the possible feelings of delicate and highly-born Egyptian ladies, on whose seemly sepulture such anxious and tender care was expended so many centuries ago.
But in this case there is no such responsibility. None of the persons concerned have any objection to the publication of these records, and as for the writer himself he was entirely free from any desire for a fastidious seclusion. His life was a secluded one enough, and he felt strongly that a man has a right to his own personal privacy. But his own words sufficiently prove, if proof were needed, that he felt that to deny the right of others to participate in thoughts and experiences, which might uplift or help a mourner or a sufferer, was a selfish form of individualism with which he had no sympathy whatever. He felt, and I have heard him say, that one has no right to withhold from others any reflections which can console and sustain, and he held it to be the supreme duty of a man to ease, if he could, the burden of another. He knew that there is no sympathy in the world so effective as the sharing of similar experiences, as the power of assuring a sufferer that another has indeed trodden the same dark path and emerged into the light of Heaven. I will even venture to say that he deliberately intended that his records should be so used, for purposes of alleviation and consolation, and the bequest that he made of his papers to myself, entrusting them to my absolute discretion, makes it clear to me that I have divined his wishes in the matter. I think, indeed, that his only doubt was a natural diffidence as to whether the record had sufficient importance to justify its publication. In any case, my own duty in the matter is to me absolutely clear.
But I think that it will be as well for me to sketch a brief outline of my friend's life and character. I would have preferred to have done this, if it had been possible, by allowing him to speak for himself. But the earlier Diaries which exist are nothing but the briefest chronicle of events. He put his earlier confessions into his books, but he was in many ways more interesting than his books, and so I will try and draw a portrait of him as he appeared to one of his earliest friends. I knew him first as an undergraduate, and our friendship was unbroken after that. The Diary, written as it is under the shadow of a series of calamities, gives an impression of almost wilful sadness which is far from the truth. The requisite contrast can only be attained by representing him as he appeared to those who knew him.
He was the son of a moderately wealthy country solicitor, and was brought up on normal lines. His mother died while he was a boy. He had one brother, younger than himself, and a sister who was younger still. He went to a leading public school, where he was in no way distinguished either in work or athletics. I gathered, when I first knew him, that he had been regarded as a clever, quiet, good-natured, simple-minded boy, with a considerable charm of manner, but decidedly retiring. He was not expected to distinguish himself in any way, and he did not seem to have any particular ambitions. I went up to Cambridge at the same time as he, and we formed a very close friendship. We had kindred tastes, and we did not concern ourselves very much with the social life of the place. We read, walked, talked, played games, idled, and amused ourselves together. I was more attached to him, I think, than he was to me; indeed, I do not think that he cared at that time to form particularly close ties. He was frank, engaging, humorous, and observant; but I do not think that he depended very much upon any one; he rather tended to live an interior life of his own, of poetical and fanciful reflection. I think he tended to be pensive rather than high-spirited—at least, I do not often remember any particular ebullition of youthful enthusiasm. He liked congenial company, but he was always ready to be alone. He very seldom went to the rooms of other men, except in response to definite invitations; but he was always disposed to welcome any one who came spontaneously to see him. He was a really diffident and modest fellow, and I do not think it even entered into his head to imagine that he had any social gifts or personal charm. But I gradually came to perceive that his mind was of a very fine quality. He had a mature critical judgment, and, though I used to think that his tastes were somewhat austere, I now see that he had a very sure instinct for alighting upon what was best and finest in books and art alike. He used to write poetry in those days, but he was shy of confessing it, and very conscious of the demerits of what he wrote. I have some of his youthful verses by me, and though they are very unequal and full of lapses, yet he often strikes a firm note and displays a subtle insight. I think that he was more ambitious than I perhaps knew, and had that vague belief in his own powers which is characteristic of able and unambitious men. His was certainly, on the whole, a cold nature in those days. He could take up a friendship where he laid it down, by virtue of an easy frankness and a sympathy that was intellectual rather than emotional. But the suspension of intercourse with a friend never troubled him.
I became aware, in the course of a walking tour that I took with him in those days, that he had a deep perception of the beauties of nature; it was not a vague accessibility to picturesque impressions, but a critical discernment of quality. He always said that he cared more for little vignettes, which he could grasp entire, than for wide and majestic prospects; and this was true of his whole mind.
I suppose that I tended to idealise him; but he certainly seems to me, in retrospect, to have then been invested with a singular charm. He was pure-minded and fastidious to a fault. He had considerable personal beauty, rather perhaps of expression than of feature. He was one of those people with a natural grace of movement, gesture and speech. He was wholly unembarrassed in manner, but he talked little in a mixed company. No one had fewer enemies or fewer intimate friends. The delightful ears soon came to an end, and one of the few times I ever saw him exhibit strong emotion was on the evening before he left Cambridge, when he altogether broke down. I remember his quoting a verse from Omar Khayyam:—
"Yet ah! that spring should vanish with the rose, That Youth's sweet-scented manuscript should close,"
and breaking off in the middle with sudden tears.
It was necessary for me to adopt a profession, and I remember envying him greatly when he told me that his father, who, I gathered, rather idolised him, was quite content that he should choose for himself at his leisure. He went abroad for a time; and I met him next in London, where he was proposing to read for the bar; but I discovered that he had really found his metier. He had written a novel, which he showed me, and though it was in some ways an immature performance, it had, I felt, high and unmistakable literary qualities. It was published soon afterwards and met with some success. He thereupon devoted himself to writing, and I was astonished at his industry and eagerness. He had for the first time found a congenial occupation. He lived mostly at home in those days, but he was often in London, where he went a good deal into society. I do not know very much about him at this time, but I gather that he achieved something of a social reputation. He was never a voluble talker; I do not suppose he ever set the table in a roar, but he had a quiet, humorous and sympathetic manner. His physical health was then, as always, perfect. He was never tired or peevish; he was frank, kindly and companionable; he talked little about himself, and had a genuine interest in the study of personality, so that people were apt to feel at their best in his society. Meanwhile his books came out one after another—not great books exactly, but full of humour and perception, each an advance on the last. By the age of thirty he was accepted as one of the most promising novelists of the day.
Then he did what I never expected he would do; he fell wildly and enthusiastically in love with the only daughter of a Gloucestershire clergyman, a man of good family and position. She was the only child; her mother had died some years before, and her father died shortly after the marriage. She was a beautiful, vigorous girl, extraordinarily ingenuous, simple-minded, and candid. She was not clever in the common acceptance of the term, and was not the sort of person by whom I should have imagined that my friend would have been attracted. They settled in a pleasant house, which they built in Surrey, on the outskirts of a village. Three children were born to them—a boy and a girl, and another boy, who survived his birth only a few hours. From this time he almost entirely deserted London, and became, I thought, almost strangely content with a quiet domestic life. I was often with them in those early days, and I do not think I ever saw a happier circle. It was a large and comfortable house, very pleasantly furnished, with a big garden. His father died in the early years of the marriage, and left him a good income; with the proceeds of his books he was a comparatively wealthy man. His wife was one of those people who have a serene and unaffected interest in human beings. She was a religious woman, but her relations with others were rather based on the purest kindliness and sympathy. She knew every one in the place, and, having no touch of shyness, she went in and out among their poorer neighbours, the trusted friend and providence of numerous families; but she had not in the least what is called a parochial mind. She had no touch of the bustling and efficient Lady Bountiful. The simple people she visited were her friends and neighbours, not her patients and dependents. She was simply an overflowing fountain of goodness, and it was a natural to her to hurry to a scene of sorrow and suffering as it is for most people to desire to stay away. My friend himself had not the same taste; it was always rather an effort to him to accommodate himself to people in a different way of life; but it ought to be said that he was universally liked and respected for his quiet courtesy and simplicity, and fully as much for his own sake as for that of his wife. This fact could hardly be inferred from his Diary, and indeed he was wholly unconscious of it himself, because he never realised his natural charm, and indeed was unduly afraid of boring people by his presence.
He was not exactly a hard worker, but he was singularly regular; indeed, though he sometimes took a brief holiday after writing a book, he seldom missed a day without writing some few pages. One of the reasons why they paid so few visits was that he tended, as he told me, to feel so much bored away from his work. It was at once his occupation and his recreation. He was not one of those who write fiercely and feverishly, and then fall into exhaustion; he wrote cheerfully and temperately, and never appeared to feel the strain. They lived quietly, but a good many friends came and went. He much preferred to have a single quest, or a husband and wife, at a time, and pursued his work quietly all through. He used to see that one had all one could need, and then withdrew after tea-time, not reappearing until dinner. His wife, it was evident, was devoted to him with an almost passionate adoration. The reason why life went so easily there was that she studied unobtrusively his smallest desires and preferences; and thus there was never any sense of special contrivance or consideration for his wishes: the day was arranged exactly as he liked, without his ever having to insist upon details. He probably did not realise this, for though he liked settled ways, he was sensitively averse to feeling that his own convenience was in any way superseding or overriding the convenience of others. It used to be a great delight and refreshment to stay there. He was fond of rambling about the country, and was an enchanting companion in a tete-a-tete. In the evening he used to expand very much into a genial humour which was very attractive; he had, too, the art of making swift and subtle transitions into an emotional mood; and here his poetical gift of seeing unexpected analogies and delicate characteristics gave his talk a fragrant charm which I have seldom heard equalled.
It was indeed a picture of wonderful prosperity, happiness, and delight. The children were engaging, clever, and devotedly affectionate, and indeed the atmosphere of mutual affection seemed to float over the circle like a fresh and scented summer air. One used to feel, as one drove away, that though one's visit had been a pleasure, there would be none of the flatness which sometimes follows the departure of a guest, but that one was leaving them to a home life that was better than sociability, a life that was both sacred and beautiful, full to the brim of affection, yet without any softness or sentimentality.
Then came my friend's great success. He had written less since his marriage, and his books, I thought, were beginning to flag a little. There was a want of freshness about them; he tended to use the same characters and similar situations; both thought and phraseology became somewhat mannerised. I put this down myself to the belief that life was beginning to be more interesting to him than art. But there suddenly appeared the book which made him famous, a book both masterly and delicate, full of subtle analysis and perception, and with that indescribable sense of actuality which is the best test of art. The style at the same time seemed to have run clear; he had gained a perfect command of his instrument, and I had about this book, what I had never had about any other book of his, the sense that he was producing exactly the effects he meant to produce. The extraordinary merit of the book was instantly recognised by all, I think, but the author. He went abroad for a time after the book was published, and eventually returned; it was at that point of his life that the Diary began.
I went to see him not long after, and it became rapidly clear to me that something had happened to him. Instead of being radiant with success, eager and contented, I found him depressed, anxious, haggard. He told me that he felt unstrung and exhausted, and that his power of writing had deserted him. But I must bear testimony at the same time to the fact which does not emerge in the Diary, namely, the extraordinary gallantry and patience of his conduct and demeanour. He struggled visibly and pathetically, from hour to hour, against his depression. He never complained; he never showed, at least in my presence, the smallest touch of irritability. Indeed to myself, who had known him as the most equable and good-humoured of men, he seemed to support the trial with a courage little short of heroism. The trial was a sore one, because it deprived him both of motive and occupation. But he made the best of it; he read, he took long walks, and he threw himself with great eagerness into the education of his children—a task for which he was peculiarly qualified. Then a series of calamities fell upon him: he lost his boy, a child of wonderful ability and sweetness; he lost his fortune, or the greater part of it. The latter calamity he bore with perfect imperturbability—they let their house and moved into Gloucestershire. Here a certain measure of happiness seemed to return to him. He made a new friend, as the Diary relates, in the person of the Squire of the village, a man who, though an invalid, had a strong and almost mystical hold upon life. Here he began to interest himself in the people of the place, and tried all sorts of education and social experiments. But his wife fell ill, and died very suddenly; and, not long after, his daughter died too. He was for a time almost wholly broken down. I went abroad with him at his request for a few weeks, but I was myself obliged to return to England to my professional duties. I can only say that I did not expect ever to see him again. He was like a man, the spring of whose life was broken; but at the same time he bore himself with a patience and a gentleness that fairly astonished me. We were together day by day and hour by hour. He made no complaint, and he used to force himself, with what sad effort was only too plain, to converse on all sorts of topics. Some time after he drifted back to England; but at first he appeared to be in a very listless and dejected state. Then there arrived, almost suddenly, it seemed to me, a change. He had made the sacrifice; he had accepted the situation. There came to him a serenity which was only like his old serenity from the fact that it seemed entirely unaffected; but it was based, I felt, on a very different view of life. He was now content to wait and to believe. It was at this time that the Squire died; and not long afterwards, the Squire's niece, a woman of great strength and simplicity of character, married a clergyman to whom she had been long attached, both being middle-aged people; and the living soon afterwards falling vacant, her husband accepted it, and the newly-married pair moved into the Rectory; while my friend, who had been named as the Squire's ultimate heir, a life-interest in the property being secured to the niece, went into the Hall. Shortly afterwards he adopted a nephew—his sister's son—who, with the consent of all concerned, was brought up as the heir to the estate, and is its present proprietor.
My friend lived some fifteen years after that, a quiet, active, and obviously contented life. I was a frequent guest at the Hall, and I am sure that I never saw a more attached circle. My friend became a magistrate, and he did a good deal of county business; but his main interest was in the place, where he was the trusted friend and counsellor of every household in the parish. He took a great deal of active exercise in the open air; he read much. He taught his nephew, whom he did not send to school. He regained, in fuller measure than ever, his old delightful charm of conversation, and his humour, which had always been predominant in him, took on a deeper and a richer tinge; but whereas in old days he had been brilliant and epigrammatic, he was now rather poetical and suggestive; and whereas he had formerly been reticent about his emotions and his religion, he now acquired what is to my mind the profoundest conversational charm—the power of making swift and natural transitions into matters of what, for want of a better word, I will call spiritual experience. I remember his once saying to me that he had learnt, from his intercourse with his village neighbours, that the one thing in the world in which every one was interested was religion; "even more," he added, with a smile, "than is the one subject in which Sir Robert Walpole said that every one could join."
I do not suppose that his religion was of a particularly orthodox kind; he was impatient of dogmatic definition and of ecclesiastical tendencies; but he cared with all his heart for the vital principles of religion, the love of God and the love of one's neighbour.
He lived to see his adopted son grow up to maturity; and I do not think I ever saw anything so beautiful as the confidence and affection that subsisted between them; and then he died one day, as he had often told me he desired to die. He had been ailing for a week, and on rising from his chair in the morning he was seized by a sudden faintness and died within half-an-hour, hardly knowing, I imagine, that he was in any danger.
It fell to me to deal with his papers. There was a certain amount of scattered writing, but no completed work; it all dated from before the publication of his great book. It was determined that this Diary should eventually see the light, and circumstances into which I need not now enter have rendered its appearance advisable at the present date.
The interest of the document is its candour and outspokenness. If the tone of the record, until near the end, is one of unrelieved sadness, it must be borne in mind that all the time he bore himself in the presence of others with a singular courage and simplicity. He said to me once, in an hour of dark despair, that he had drunk the dregs of self-abasement. That he believed that he had no sense of morality, no loyal affection, no love of virtue, no patience or courage. That his only motives had been timidity, personal ambition, love of respectability, love of ease. He added that this had been slowly revealed to him, and that the only way out was a way that he had not as yet strength to tread; the way of utter submission, absolute confidence, entire resignation. He said that there was one comfort, which was, that he knew the worst about himself that it was possible to know. I told him that his view of his character was unjust and exaggerated, but he only shook his head with a smile that went to my heart. It was on that day, I think, that he touched the lowest depth of all; and after that he found the way out, along the path that he had indicated.
This is no place for eulogy and panegyric. My task has been just to trace the portrait of my friend as he appeared to others; his own words shall reveal the inner spirit. The beauty of the life to me was that he attained, unconsciously and gradually, to the very virtues which he most desired and in which he felt himself to be most deficient. He had to bear a series of devastating calamities. He had loved the warmth and nearness of his home circle more deeply than most men, and the whole of it was swept away; he had depended for stimulus and occupation alike upon his artistic work, and the power was taken from him at the moment of his highest achievement. His loss of fortune is not to be reckoned among his calamities, because it was no calamity to him. He ended by finding a richer treasure than any that he had set out to obtain; and I remember that he said to me once, not long before his end, that whatever others might feel about their own lives, he could not for a moment doubt that his own had been an education of a deliberate and loving kind, and that the day when he realised that, when he saw that there was not a single incident in his life that had not a deep and an intentional value for him, was one of the happiest days of his whole existence. I do not know that he expected anything or speculated on what might await him hereafter; he put his future, just as he put his past and his present, in the hands of God, to Whom he committed himself "as unto a faithful Creator."
THE ALTAR FIRE
September 8, 1888.
We came back yesterday, after a very prosperous time at Zermatt; we have been there two entire months. Yes, it was certainly prosperous! We had delicious weather, and I have seen a number of pleasant people. I have done a great deal of walking, I have read a lot of novels and old poetry, I have sate about a good deal in the open air; but I do not really like Switzerland; there are of course an abundance of noble wide-hung views, but there are few vignettes, little on which the mind and heart dwell with an intimate and familiar satisfaction. Those airy pinnacles of toppling rocks, those sheets of slanted snow, those ice-bound crags—there is a sense of fear and mystery about them! One does not know what is going on there, what they are waiting for; they have no human meaning. They do not seem to have any relation to humanity at all. Sunday after Sunday one used to have sermons in that hot, trim little wooden church—some from quite famous preachers—about the need of rest, the advantage of letting the mind and eye dwell in awe upon the wonderful works of God. Of course the mountains are wonderful enough; but they make me feel that humanity plays a very trifling part in the mind and purpose of God. I do not think that if I were a preacher of the Gospel, and had a speculative turn, I should care to take a holiday among the mountains. I should be beset by a dreary wonder whether the welfare of humanity was a thing very dear to God at all. I should feel very strongly what the Psalmist said, "What is man that Thou art mindful of him?" It would take the wind out of my sails, when I came to preach about Redemption, because I should be tempted to believe that, after all, human beings were only in the world on sufferance, and that the aching, frozen, barren earth, so inimical to life, was in even more urgent need of redemption. Day by day, among the heights, I grew to feel that I wanted some explanation of why the strange panorama of splintered crag and hanging ice-fall was there at all. It certainly is not there with any reference to man—at least it is hard to believe that it is all there that human beings may take a refreshing holiday in the midst of it. When one penetrates Switzerland by the green pine-clad valleys, passing through and beneath those delicious upland villages, each clustering round a church with a glittering cupola, the wooden houses with their brown fronts, their big eaves, perched up aloft at such pleasant angles, one thinks of Switzerland as an inhabited land of valleys, with screens and backgrounds of peaks and snowfields; but when one goes up higher still, and gets up to the top of one of the peaks, one sees that Switzerland is really a region of barren ridges, millions of acres of cold stones and ice, with a few little green cracks among the mountain bases, where men have crept to live; and that man is only tolerated there.
One day I was out with a guide on a peak at sunrise. Behind the bleak and shadowy ridges there stole a flush of awakening dawn; then came a line of the purest yellow light, touching the crags and snowfields with sharp blue shadows; the lemon-coloured radiance passed into fiery gold, the gold flushed to crimson, and then the sun leapt into sight, and shed the light of day upon the troubled sea of mountains. It was more than that—the hills made, as it were, the rim of a great cold shadowy goblet; and the light was poured into it from the uprushing sun, as bubbling and sparkling wine is poured into a beaker. I found myself thrilled from head to foot with an intense and mysterious rapture. What did it all mean, this awful and resplendent solemnity, full to brim of a solitary and unapproachable holiness? What was the secret of the thing? Perhaps every one of those stars that we had seen fade out of the night was ringed round by planets such as ours, peopled by forms undreamed of; doubtless on millions of globes, the daylight of some central sun was coming in glory over the cold ridges, and waking into life sentient beings, in lands outside our ken, each with civilisations and histories and hopes and fears of their own. A stupendous, an overwhelming thought! And yet, in the midst of it, here was I myself, a little consciousness sharply divided from it all, permitted to be a spectator, a partaker of the intolerable and gigantic mystery, and yet so strangely made that the whole of that vast and prodigious complexity of life and law counted for less to me than the touch of weariness that hung, after my long vigil, over limbs and brain. The faculty, the godlike power of knowing and imagining, all actually less to me than my own tiny and fragile sensations. Such moods as these are strange things, because they bring with them so intense a desire to know, to perceive, and yet paralyse one with the horror of the darkness in which one moves. One cannot conceive why it is that one is given the power of realising the multiplicity of creation, and yet at the same time left so wholly ignorant of its significance. One longs to leap into the arms of God, to catch some whisper of His voice; and at the same time there falls the shadow of the prison-house; one is driven relentlessly back upon the old limited life, the duties, the labours, the round of meals and sleep, the tiny relations with others as ignorant as ourselves, and, still worse, with the petty spirits who have a complacent explanation of it all. Even over love itself the shadow falls. I am as near to my own dear and true Maud as it is possible to be; but I can tell her nothing of the mystery, and she can tell me nothing. We are allowed for a time to draw close to each other, to whisper to each other our hopes and fears; but at any moment we can be separated. The children, Alec and Maggie, dearer to me—I can say it honestly—than life itself, to whom we have given being, whose voices I hear as I write, what of them? They are each of them alone, though they hardly know it yet. The little unnamed son, who opened his eyes upon the world six years ago, to close them in a few hours, where and what is he now? Is he somewhere, anywhere? Does he know of the joy and sorrow he has brought into our lives? I would fain believe it . . . these are profitless thoughts, of one staring into the abyss. Somehow these bright weeks have been to me a dreary time. I am well in health; nothing ails me. It is six months since my last book was published, and I have taken a deliberate holiday; but always before, my mind, the strain of a book once taken off it, has begun to sprout and burgeon with new ideas and schemes: but now, for the first time in my life, my mind and heart remain bare and arid. I seem to have drifted into a dreary silence. It is not that things have been less beautiful, but beauty seems to have had no message, no significance for me. The people that I have seen have come and gone like ghosts and puppets. I have had no curiosity about them, their occupations and thoughts, their hopes and lives; it has not seemed worth while to be interested, in a life which appears so short, and which leads nowhere. It seems morbid to write thus, but I have not been either morbid or depressed. It has been an easy life, the life of the last few months, without effort or dissatisfaction, but without zest. It is a mental tiredness, I suppose. I have written myself out, and the cistern must fill again. Yet I have had no feeling of fatigue. It would have been almost better to have had something to bear; but I am richer than I need be, Maud and the children have been in perfect health and happiness, I have been well and strong. I shall hope that the familiar scene, the pleasant activities of home-life will bring the desire back. I realise how much the fabric of my life is built upon my writing, and write I must. Well, I have said enough; the pleasure of these entries is that one can look back to them, and see the movement of the current of life in a bygone day. I have an immense mass of arrears to make up, in the form of letters and business, but I want to survey the ground; and the survey is not a very happy one this morning; though if I made a list of my benefits and the reverse, like Robinson Crusoe, the credit side would be full of good things, and the debit side nearly empty.
September 15, 1888.
It is certainly very sweet to be at home again; to find oneself in familiar scenes, with all the pretty homely comfortable things waiting patiently for us to return—pictures, books, rooms, tree, kindly people. Wright, my excellent gardener, with whom I spent an hour strolling round the garden to-day, touched me by saying that he was glad to see me back, and that it had seemed dull without me; he has done fifty little simple things in our absence, in his tranquil and faithful way, and is pleased to have them noticed. Alec, who was with me to-day, delighted me by finding his stolid wooden horse in the summer-house, rather damp and dishevelled, and almost bursting into tears at the pathos of the neglect. "Did you think we had forgotten you?" he said as he hugged it. I suggested that he should have a good meal. "I don't think he would care about GRASS," said Alec thoughtfully, "he shall have some leaves and berries for a treat." And this was tenderly executed. Maud went off to see some of her old pensioners, and came back glowing with pleasure, with twenty pleasant stories of welcome. Two or three people came in to see me on business, and I was glad to feel I was of use. In the afternoon we all went off on a long ramble together, and we were quite surprised to see that everything seemed to be in its place as usual. Summer is over, the fields have been reaped; there is a comfortable row of stacks in the rickyard; the pleasant humming of an engine came up the valley, as it sang its homely monotone, now low, now loud. After tea—the evenings have begun to close in—I went off to my study, took out my notebook and looked over my subjects, but I could make nothing of any of them. I could see that there were some good ideas among them; but none of them took shape. Often I have found that to glance over my subjects thus, after a holiday, is like blowing soap-bubbles. The idea comes out swelling and eddying from the bowl; a globe swimming with lucent hues, reflecting dim moving shapes of rooms and figures. Not so to-day. My mind winked and flapped and rustled like a burnt-out fire; not in a depressed or melancholy way, but phlegmatically and dully. Well, the spirit bloweth as it listeth; but it is strange to find my mind so unresponsive, with none of that pleasant stir, that excitement that has a sort of fantastic terror about it, such as happens when a book stretches itself dimly and mysteriously before the mind—when one has a glimpse of a quiet room with people talking, a man riding fiercely on lonely roads, two strolling together in a moonlit garden with the shadows of the cypresses on the turf, and the fragrance of the sleeping flowers blown abroad. They stop to listen to the nightingale in the bush . . . turn to each other . . . the currents of life are intermingled at the meeting of the lips, the warm shudder at the touch of the floating tress of fragrant hair. To-day nothing comes to me; I throw it all aside and go to see the children, am greeted delightfully, and join in some pretty and absurd game. Then dinner comes; and I sit afterwards reading, dropping the book to talk, Maud working in her corner by the fire—all things moving so tranquilly and easily in this pleasantly ordered home-like house of ours. It is good to be at home; and how pitiful to be hankering thus for something else to fill the mind, which should obliterate all the beloved things so tenderly provided. Maud asks about the reception of the latest book, and sparkles with pride at some of the things I tell her. She sees somehow—how do women divine these things?—that there is a little shadow of unrest over me, and she tells me all the comforting things that I dare not say to myself—that it is only that the book took more out of me than I knew, and that the resting-time is not over yet; but that I shall soon settle down again. Then I go off to smoke awhile; and then the haunting shadow comes back for a little; till at last I go softly through the sleeping house; and presently lie listening to the quiet breathing of my wife beside me, glad to be at home again, until the thoughts grow blurred, take grotesque shapes, sinking softly into repose.
September 18, 1888.
I have spent most of the morning in clearing up business, and dealing with papers and letters. Among the accumulations was a big bundle of press-cuttings, all dealing with my last book. It comes home to me that the book has been a success; it began by slaying its thousands, like Saul, and now it has slain its tens of thousands. It has brought me hosts of letters, from all sorts of people, some of them very delightful and encouraging, many very pleasant—just grateful and simple letters of thanks—some vulgar and impertinent, some strangely intimate. What is it, I wonder, that makes some people want to tell a writer whom they have never seen all about themselves, their thoughts and histories? In some cases it is an unaffected desire for sympathy from a person whom they think perceptive and sympathetic; in some cases it proceeds, I think, from a hysterical desire to be thought interesting, with a faint hope, I fear, of being possibly put into a book. Some of the letters have been simply unintelligible and inconceivable on any hypothesis, except for the human instinct to confess, to bare the heart, to display the secret sorrow. Many of these letters are intensely pathetic, affecting, heart-rending; an invalid lady writes to say that she would like to know me, and will I come to the North of England to see her? A man writes a pretentious letter, to ask me to go and stay with him for a week. He has nothing to offer, he says, but plain fare and rather cramped quarters; but he has thought deeply, he adds, on many of the problems on which I touch, and thinks that he could throw light upon some of them. Imagine what reserves of interest and wisdom he must consider that he possesses! Then there are patronising letters from people who say that I have put into words thoughts which they have always had, and which they never took the trouble to write down; then there are requests for autographs, and "sentiments," and suggestions for new books. A man writes to say that I could do untold good if I would write a book with a purpose, and ventures to propose that I should take up anti-vivisection. There are a few letters worth their weight in gold, from good men and true, writers and critics, who thank me for a book which fulfils its aim and artistic purpose, while on the other hand there are some from people who find fault with my book for not doing what I never even attempted to do. Here is one that has given me deep and unmitigated pain; it is from an old friend, who, I am told, is aggrieved because he thinks that I have put him into my book, in the form of an unpleasant character. The worst of it is that there is enough truth in it to make it difficult for me to deny it. My character is, in some superficial ways, habits, and tricks of speech, like Reginald. Well, on hearing what he felt, I wrote him a letter of apology for my carelessness and thoughtlessness, saying, as frankly as I could, that the character was not in any way drawn from him, but that I undoubtedly had, almost unconsciously, taken an external trait or two from him; adding that I was truly and heartily sorry, and hoped that there would be no ill-feeling; and that I valued his friendship even more than he probably imagined. Here is his reply:
MY DEAR F——,
—If you spit on the head of a man passing in the street, and then write to him a few days after to say that all is forgiven, and that you are sorry your aim was so accurate, you don't mend matters.
You express a hope that after what has occurred there may be no ill-feeling between us. Well, you have done me what I consider an injury. I have no desire to repay it; if I had a chance of doing you a good turn, I should do it; if I heard you abused, I should stick up for you. I have no intention of making a grievance out of it. But if you ask me to say that I do not feel a sense of wrong, or to express a wish to meet you, or to trust you any longer as I have hitherto trusted you, I must decline saying anything of the kind, because it would not be true.
Of course I know that there cannot be omelettes without breaking eggs; and I suppose that there cannot be what are called psychological novels, without violating confidences. But you cannot be surprised, when you encourage an old friend to trust you and confide in you, and then draw an ugly caricature of him in a book, if he thinks the worse of you in consequence. I hear that the book is a great success; you must be content with the fact that the yolks are as golden as they are. Please do not write to me again on the subject. I will try to forget it, and if I succeed, I will let you know.
That is the kind of letter that poisons life for a while. While I am aware that I meant no treachery, I am none the less aware that I have contrived to be a traitor. Of course one vows one will never write another line; but I do not suppose I shall keep the vow. I reply shortly, eating all the dirt I can collect; and I shall try to forget it too; though it is a shabby end of an old friendship.
Then I turn to the reviews. I find them gracious, respectful, laudatory. They are to be taken cum grano, of course. When an enthusiastic reviewer says that I have passed at one stride into the very first class of contemporary writers, I do not feel particularly elated, though I am undeniably pleased. I find my conception, my structure, my style, my descriptions, my character-drawing, liberally and generously praised. There is no doubt that the book has been really successful beyond my wildest hopes. If I were in any doubt, the crop of letters from editors and publishers asking me for articles and books of every kind, and offering me incredible terms, would convince me.
Now what do I honestly feel about all this? I will try for my own benefit to say. Of course I am very much pleased, but the odd thing is that I am not more pleased. I can say quite unaffectedly that it does not turn my head in the least. I reflect that if this had happened when I began to write, I should have been beside myself with delight, full of self-confidence, blown out with wind, like the fog in the fable. Even now there is a deep satisfaction in having done what one has tried to do. But instead of raking in the credit, I am more inclined to be grateful for my good fortune. I feel as if I had found something valuable rather than made something beautiful; as if I had stumbled on a nugget of gold or a pearl of price. I am very fatalistic about writing; one is given a certain thing to say, and the power to say it; it does not come by effort, but by a pleasant felicity. After all, I reflect, the book is only a good story, well told. I do not feel like a benefactor of the human race, but at the best like a skilful minstrel, who has given some innocent pleasure. What, after all, does it amount to? I have touched to life, perhaps a few gracious, tender, romantic fancies—but, after all, the thoughts and emotions were there to start with, just as the harmonies which the musician awakes are all dormant in his throbbing strings. I have created nothing, only perceived and represented phenomena. I have gained no sensibility, no patience, no wisdom in the process. I know no more of the secret of life and love, than before I wrote my book. I am only like a scientific investigator who has discovered certain delicate processes, subtle laws at work. They were there all the time; the temptation of the investigator and of the writer alike is to yield to the delusion that he has made them, by discerning and naming them. As for the style, which is highly praised, it has not been made by effort. It is myself. I have never written for any other reason than because I liked writing. It has been a pleasure to overcome difficulties, to make my way round obstacles, to learn how to express the vague an intangible thing. But I deserve no credit for this; I should deserve credit if I had made myself a good writer out of a bad one; but I could always write, and I am not a better writer, only a more practised one. There is no satisfaction there.
And then, too, I find myself overshadowed by the thought that I do not want to do worse, to go downhill, to decline. I do not feel at all sure that I can write a better book, or so good a one indeed. I should dislike failing far more than I like having succeeded. To have reached a certain standard makes it incumbent on one that one should not fall below that standard; and no amount of taking pains will achieve that. It can only be done through a sort of radiant felicity of mood, which is really not in my power to count upon. I was happy, supremely happy, when I was writing the book. I lighted upon a fine conception, and it was the purest joy to see the metal trickle firmly from the furnace into the mould. Can I make such a mould again? Can I count upon the ingots piled in the fierce flame? Can I reckon upon the same temperamental glow? I do not know—I fear not.
Here is the net result—that I have become a sort of personage in the world of letters. Do I desire it? Yes, in a sense I do, but in a sense I do not. I do not want money, I do not wish for public appearances. I have no social ambitions. To be pointed out as the distinguished novelist is distinctly inconvenient. People will demand a certain standard of talk, a certain brilliance, which I am not in the least capable of giving them. I want to sit at my ease at the banquet of life, not to be ushered to the highest rooms. I prefer interesting and pleasant people to important and majestic persons. Perhaps if I were more simple-minded, I should not care about the matter at all; just be grateful for the increased warmth and amenity of life—but I am not simple-minded, and I hate not fulfilling other people's expectations. I am not a prodigal, full-blooded, royal sort of person at all. I am not conscious of greatness, but far more of emptiness. I do not wish to seem pretentious. I have got this one faculty; but it has outrun all the rest of me, and I am aware that it has drained the rest of my nature. The curious thing is that this sort of fame is the thing that as a young man I used to covet. I used to think it would be so sustaining and resplendent. Now that it has come to me, in far richer measure, I will not say than I hoped, but at all events than I had expected, it does not seem to be a wholly desirable thing. Fame is only one of the sauces of life; it is not the food of the spirit at all. The people that praise one are like the courtiers that bow in the anterooms of a king, through whom he passes to the lonely study where his life is lived. I am not feeling ungrateful or ungenerous; but I would give all that I have gained for a new and inspiring friendship, or for the certainty that I should write another book with the same happiness as I wrote my last book. Perhaps I ought to feel the responsibility more! I do feel it in a sense, but I have never estimated the moral effectiveness of a writer of fiction very high; one comforts rather than sustains; one diverts rather than feeds. If I could hear of one self-sacrificing action, one generous deed, one tranquil surrender that had been the result of my book, I should be more pleased than I am with all the shower of compliments. Of course in a sense praise makes life more interesting; but what I really desire to apprehend is the significance and meaning of life, that strange mixture of pain and pleasure, of commonplace events and raptures; and my book brings me no nearer that. To feel God nearer me, to feel, not by evidence but by instinct, that there is a Heart that cares for me, and moulded me from the clay for a purpose—why, I would give all that I have in the world for that!
Of course Maud will be pleased; but that will be because she believes that I deserve everything and anything, and is only surprised that the world has not found out sooner what a marvellous person I am. God knows I do not undervalue her belief in me; but it makes and keeps me humble to feel how far she is from the truth, how far from realising the pitiful weakness and emptiness of her lover and husband.
Is this, I wonder, how all successful people feel about fame? The greatest of all have often never enjoyed the least touch of it in their lifetime; and they are happier so. Some few rich and generous natures, like Scott and Browning, have neither craved for it nor valued it. Some of the greatest have desired it, slaved for it, clung to it. Yet when it comes, one realises how small a part of life and thought it fills—unless indeed it brings other desirable things with it; and this is not the case with me, because I have all I want. Well, if I can but set to work at another book, all these idle thoughts will die away; but my mind rattles like a shrunken kernel. I must kneel down and pray, as Blake and his wife did, when the visions deserted them.
September 25, 1888.
Here is a social instance of what it means to become "quite a little man," as Stevenson used to say. Some county people near here, good-natured, pushing persons, who have always been quite civil but nothing more, invited themselves to luncheon here a day or two ago, bringing with them a distinguished visitor. They throw in some nauseous compliments to my book, and say that Lord Wilburton wishes to make my acquaintance. I do not particularly want to make his, though he is a man of some not. But there was no pretext for declining. Such an incursion is a distinct bore; it clouds the morning—one cannot settle down with a tranquil mind to one's work; it fills the afternoon. They came, and it proved not uninteresting. They are pleasant people enough, and Lord Wilburton is a man who has been everywhere and seen everybody. The fact that he wished to make my acquaintance shows, no doubt, that I have sailed into his ken, and that he wishes to add me to his collection. I felt myself singularly unrewarding. I am not a talker at the best of times, and to feel that I am expected to be witty and suggestive is the last straw. Lord Wilburton discoursed fluently and agreeably. Lady Harriet said that she envied me my powers of writing, and asked how I came to think of my last brilliant book, which she had so enjoyed. I did not know what to say, and could not invent anything. They made a great deal of the children. They walked round the garden. They praised everything ingeniously. They could not say the house was big, and so they called in convenient. They could not say that the garden was ample, but Lord Wilburton said that he had never seen so much ground go to the acre. That was neat enough. They made a great point of visiting my library, and carried away my autograph, written with the very same pen with which I wrote my great book. This they called a privilege. They made us promise to go over to the Castle, which I have no great purpose of doing. We parted with mutual goodwill, and with that increase of geniality on my own part which comes on me at the end of a visit. Altogether I did not dislike it, though it did not seem to me particularly worth while. To-day my wife tells me that they told the Fitzpatricks that it was a great pleasure seeing me, because I was so modest and unaffected. That is a courteous way of concealing their disappointment that I was not more brilliant. But, good heavens, what did they expect? I suppose, indeed I have no doubt, that if I had talked mysteriously about my book, and had described the genesis of it, and my method of working, they would have preferred that. Just as in reminiscences of the Duke of Wellington, the people who saw him in later life seem to have been struck dumb by a sort of tearful admiration at the sight of the Duke condescending to eat his dinner, or to light a guest's bedroom candle. Perhaps if I had been more simple-minded I should have talked frankly about myself. I don't know; it seems to me all rather vulgar. But my visitors are kindly and courteous people, and felt, I am sure, that they were both receiving and conferring benefits. They will like to describe me and my house, and they will feel that I am pleased at being received on equal terms into county society. I don't put this down at all cynically; but they are not people with whom I have anything in common. I am not of their monde at all. I belong to the middle class, and they are of the upper class. I have a faint desire to indicate that I don't want to cross the border-line, and that what I desire is the society of interesting and congenial people, not the society of my social superior. This is not unworldliness in the least, merely hedonism. Feudalism runs in the blood of these people, and they feel, not consciously but quite instinctively, that the confer a benefit by making my acquaintance. "No doubt but ye are the people," as Job said, but I do not want to rise in the social scale. It would be the earthen pot and the brazen pot at best. I am quite content with my own class, and life is not long enough to change it, and to learn the habits of another. I have no quarrel with the aristocracy, and do not in the least wish to level them to the ground. I am quite prepared to acknowledge them as the upper class. They are, as a rule, public-spirited, courteous barbarians, with a sense of honour and responsibility. But they take a great many things as matters of course which are to me simply alien. I no more wish to live with them than Wright, my self-respecting gardener, wishes to live with me—though so deeply rooted are feudal ideas in the blood of the race, that Wright treats me with a shade of increased deference because I have been entertaining a party of Lords and Ladies; and the Vicar's wife said to Maud that she heard we had been giving a very grand party, and would soon be quite county people. The poor woman will think more of my books than she has ever thought before. I don't think this is snobbish, because it is so perfectly instinctive and natural.
But what I wanted to say was that this is the kind of benefit which is conferred by success; and for a quiet person, who likes familiar and tranquil ways, it is no benefit at all; indeed, rather the reverse; unless it is a benefit that the stationmaster touched his hat to me to-day, which he has never done before. It is a funny little world. Meanwhile I have no ideas, and my visitors to-day haven't given me any, though Lord Wilburton might be a useful figure in a book; so perfectly appointed, so quiet, so deferential, so humorous, so deliciously insincere!
October 4, 1888.
I have happened to read lately, in some magazines, certain illustrated interviews with prominent people, which have given me a deep sense of mental and moral nausea. I do not think I am afflicted with a strong sense of the sacredness of a man's home life—at least, if it is sacred at all, it seems to me to be just as much profaned by allowing visitors or strangers to see it and share it as it is by allowing it to be written about in a periodical. If it is sacred in a peculiar sense, then only very intimate friends ought to be allowed to see it, and there should be a tacit sense that they ought not to tell any one outside what it is like; but if I am invited to luncheon with a celebrated man whom I do not know, because I happen to be staying in the neighbourhood, I do not think I violate his privacy by describing my experience to other people. If a man has a beautiful house, a happy interior, a gifted family circle, and if he is himself a remarkable man, it is a privilege to be admitted to it, it does one good to see it; and it seems to me that the more people who realise the beauty and happiness of it the better. The question of numbers has nothing to do with it. Suppose, for instance, that I am invited to stay with a great man, and suppose that I have a talent for drawing; I may sketch his house and his rooms, himself and his family, if he does not object—and it seems to me that it would be churlish and affected of him to object—I may write descriptive letters from the place, giving an account of his domestic ways, his wife and family, his rooms, his books, his garden, his talk. I do not see that there is any reasonable objection to my showing those sketches to other people who are interested in the great man, or to the descriptive letters or diary that I write being shown or read to others who do not know him. Indeed I think it is a perfectly natural and wholesome desire to know something of the life and habits of great men; I would go further, and say that it is an improving and inspiring sort of knowledge to be acquainted with the pleasant details of the well-ordered, contented, and happy life of a high-minded and effective man. Who, for instance, considers it to be a sort of treachery for the world at large to know something of the splendid and affectionate life of the Kingsley circle at Eversley Rectory, or of the Tennyson circle at Freshwater? to look at pictures of the scene, to hear how the great men looked and moved and spoke? And if it is not profanation to hear and see this in the pages of a biography, why is it a profanation to read and see it in the pages of a magazine? To object to it seems to me to be a species of prudish conventionality.
Only you must be sure that you get a natural, simple, and unaffected picture of it all; and what I object to in the interviews which I have been reading is that one gets an unnatural, affected, self-conscious, and pompous picture of it all. To go and pose in your favourite seat in a shrubbery or a copse, where you think out your books or poems, in order that an interviewer may take a snap-shot of you—especially if in addition you assume a look of owlish solemnity as though you were the prey of great thoughts—that seems to me to be an infernal piece of posing. But still worse than that is the kind of conversation in which people are tempted to indulge in the presence of an interviewer. A man ought not to say to a wandering journalist whom he has never seen before, in the presence of his own wife, that women are the inspirers and magnetisers of the world, and that he owes all that has made him what he is to the sweet presence and sympathetic tenderness of his Bessy. This, it seems to me, is the lowest kind of melodrama. The thing may be perfectly true, the thought may be often in his mind, but he cannot be accustomed to say such things in ordinary life; and one feels that when he says them to an interviewer he does it in a thoroughly self-conscious mood, in order that he may make an impressive figure before the public. The conversations in the interviews I have been reading give me the uncomfortable sense that they have been thought out beforehand from the dramatic point of view; and indeed one earnestly hopes that this is the solution of the situation, because it would make one feel very faint if one thought that remarks of this kind were the habitual utterances of the circle—indeed, it would cure one very effectually of the desire to know anything of the interiors of celebrated people, if one thought that they habitually talked like the heroes of a Sunday-school romance. That is why the reading of these interviews is so painful, because, in the first place, one feels sure that one is not realising the daily life of these people at all, but only looking on at a tableau vivant prepared by them for the occasion; and secondly, it makes one very unhappy to think that people of real eminence and effectiveness can condescend to behave in this affected way in order to win the applause of vulgar readers. One vaguely hopes, indeed, that some of the dismal platitudes that they are represented as uttering may have been addressed to them in the form of questions by the interviewer, and that they have merely stammered a shamefaced assent. It makes a real difference, for instance, whether as a matter of fact a celebrated authoress leads her golden-haired children up to an interviewer, and says, "These are my brightest jewels;" or whether, when she tells her children to shake hands, the interviewer says, "No doubt these are your brightest jewels?" A mother is hardly in a position to return an indignant negative to such a question, and if she utters an idiotic affirmative, she is probably credited with the original remark in all its unctuousness!
It is a difficult question to decide what is the most simple-minded thing to do, if you are in the unhappy position of being requested to grant an interview for journalistic purposes. My own feeling is that if people really wish to know how I live, what I wear, what I eat and drink, what books I read, what kind of a house I live in, they are perfectly welcome to know. It does not seem to me that it would detract from the sacredness of my home life, if a picture of my dining-room, with the table laid for luncheon in a very cramped perspective, or if a photogravure of the scrap of grass and shrubbery that I call my garden, were to be published in a magazine. All that is to a certain extent public already. I should not wish to have a photograph of myself in bed, or shaving, published in a magazine, because those are not moments when I am inclined to admit visitors. Neither do I particularly want my private and informal conversation taken down and reproduced, because that often consists of opinions which are not my deliberate and thought-out utterances. But I hope that I should be able to talk simply and courteously to an interviewer on ordinary topics, in a way that would not discredit me it is was made public; and I hope, too, that decency would restrain me from making inflated and pompous remarks about my inner beliefs and motives, which were not in the least characteristic of my usual method of conversation.
The truth is that what spoils these records is the desire on the part of worthy and active people to appear more impressive in ordinary life than they actually are; it is a well-meant sort of hypocrisy, because it is intended, in a way, to influence other people, and to make them think that celebrated people live habitually on a higher tone of intellect and emotion than they do actually live upon. My on experience of meeting great people is that they are, as a rule, disappointingly like ordinary people, both in their tastes and in their conversation. Very few men or women, who are extremely effective in practical or artistic lines, have the energy or the vitality to expend themselves very freely in talk or social intercourse. They do not save themselves up for their speeches or their books; but they give their best energies to them, and have little current coin of high thought left for ordinary life. The mischief is that these interviews are generally conducted by inquisitive and rhetorical strangers, not distinguished for social tact or overburdened with good taste; and so the whole occasion tends to wear a melodramatic air, which is fatal both to artistic effect as well as to simple propriety.
October 9, 1888.
Let me set against my fashionable luncheon-party of a few weeks ago a visit which I owe no less to my success, and which has been a true and deep delight to me. I had a note yesterday from a man whom I hold in great and deep reverence, a man who I have met two or three times, a poet indeed, one of our true and authentic singers. He writes that he is in the neighbourhood; may he come over for a few hours and renew our acquaintance?
He came, in the morning. One has only to set eyes upon him to know that one is in the presence of a hero, to feel that his poetry just streams from him like light from the sun; that it is not the central warmth, but the flying rippling radiance of the outward-bound light, falling in momentary beauty on the common things about his path. He is a great big man, carelessly dressed, like a Homeric king. I liked everything about him from head to foot, his big carelessly-worn clothes, the bright tie thrust loosely through a cameo ring; his loose shaggy locks, his strong beard. His face, with its delicate pallor, and purely moulded features, had a youthful air of purity and health; yet there was a dim trouble of thought on his brow, over the great, smiling, flashing grey eyes. He came in with a sort of royal greeting, he flung his big limbs on a sofa; he talked easily, quietly, lavishly, saying fine things with no effort, dropping a subject quickly if he thought it did not interest me; sometimes flashing out with a quick gesture of impatience or gusto, enjoying life, every moment and every detail. His quick eyes, roving about, took in each smallest point, not in the weary feverish way in which I apprehend a new scene, but as though he liked everything new and unfamiliar, like an unsated child. He greeted Maud and the children with a kind of chivalrous tenderness and intimacy, as though he loved all pretty and tender things, and took joy in their nearness. He held Alec between his knees, and played with him while he talked. The children took possession of him, as if they had known him all their lives. And yet there was no touch of pose, no consciousness of greatness or vigour about him. He was as humble, grateful, interested, as though he were a poor stranger dependent on our bounty. I asked him in a quiet moment about his work. "No, I am writing nothing," he said with a smile, "I have said all I have got to say,"—and then with a sudden humorous flash, "though I believe I should be able to write more if I could get decent paper and respectable type to print my work." I ventured to ask if he did not feel any desire to write? "No," he said, "frankly I do not—the world is so full of pleasant things to do and hear and see, that I sometimes think myself almost a fool for having spent so much time in scribbling. Do you know," he went on, "a delicious story I picked up the other day? A man was travelling in some God-forsaken out-of-the-way place—I believe it was the Andes—and he fell in with an old podgy Roman priest who was going everywhere, in a state of perpetual fatigue, taking long expeditions every day, and returning worn-out in the evening, but perfectly content. The man saw a good deal of the priest, and asked him what he was doing. The priest smiled and said, 'Well, I will tell you. I had an illness some time ago and believed that I was going to die. One evening—I was half unconscious—I thought I saw some one standing by my bed. I looked, and it was a young man with a beautiful and rather severe face, whom I knew to be an angel, who was gazing at me rather strangely. I thought it was the messenger of death, and—for I was wishing to be gone and have done with it all—I said something to him about being ready to depart—and then added that I was waiting hopefully to see the joys of Paradise, the glory of the saints in light. He looked at me rather fixedly, and said, "I do not know why you should say that, and why you should expect to take so much pleasure in the beauty of heaven, when you have taken so little trouble to see anything of the beauty of earth;" and then he left me; and I reflected that I had always been doing my work in a dull humdrum way, in the same place all my life; and I determined that, if I got well, I would go about and see something of the glory that IS revealed to us, and not expect only the glory that SHALL BE revealed to us.' It is a fine story," he went on, "and makes a parable for us writers, who are inclined to think too much about our work, and disposed to see that it is very good, like God brooding over the world." He sate for a little, smiling to himself. And then I plied him with questions about his writing, how his thoughts came to him how he worked them out. He told me as if he was talking about some one else, half wondering that there could be anything to care about. I have heard many craftsmen talk about their work, but never one who talked with such detachment. As a rule, writers talk with a secret glee, and with a deprecating humility that deceives no one; but the great man talked, not as if he cared to think about it, but because it happened to interest me. He strolled with me, he lunched; and he thanked us when he went away with an earnest and humble thankfulness, as though we had extended our hospitality to an obscure and unworthy guest. And then his praise of my own books—it was all so natural; not as if he had come there with fine compliments prepared, with incense to burn; but speaking about them as though they were in his mind, and he could not help it. "I read all you write," he said; "ah, you go deep—you are a lucky fellow, to be able to see so far and so minutely, and to bring it all home to our blind souls. He must be a terrible fellow to live with," he said, smiling at my wife. "It must be like being married to a doctor, and feeling that he knows so much more about one than one knows oneself—but he sees what is best and truest, thank God; and says it with the voice of an angel, speaking softly out of his golden cloud."
I can't say what words like these have meant to me; but the visit itself, the sight of this strong, equable, good-humoured man, with no feverish ambitions, no hankering after fame or recognition, has done even more. I have heard it said that he is indolent, that he has not sufficient sense of responsibility for his gifts. But the man has done a great work for his generation; he has written poetry of the purest and finest quality. Is not that enough? I cannot understand the mere credit we give to work, without any reference to the object of the work, or the spirit in which it is done. We think with respect of the man who makes a fortune, or who fills an official post, the duties of which do nothing in particular for any one. It is a kind of obsession with us practical Westerners; of course a man ought to contribute to the necessary work of the world; but many men spend their lives in work which is not necessary; and, after all, we are sent into the world to live, and work is only a part of life. We work to live, we do not live to work. Even if we were all socialists, we should, I hope, have the grace to dig the gardens and make the clothes of our poets and prophets, so as to give them the leisure they need.
I do not question the instinct of my hero in the matter; he lives eagerly and peacefully; he touches into light the spirits of those who draw near to him; and I admire a man who knows how to stop when he has done his best work, and does not spur and whip his tired mind into producing feebler, limper, duller work of the same kind; how few of our great writers have known when to hold their hand!
God be praised for great men! My poet to-day has made me feel that life is a thing to be lived eagerly and high-heartedly; that the world is full of beautiful, generous, kindly things, of free air and sunshine; and that we ought to find leisure to drink it all in, and to send our hearts out in search of love and beauty and God—for these things are all about us, if we could but feel and hear and see them.
October 12, 1888.
How absurd it is to say that a writer could not write a large, wise, beautiful book unless he had a great soul—is it almost like saying that an artist could not paint a fine face unless he had a fine face himself. It is all a question of seeing clearly, and having a skilled hand. There is nothing to make one believe that Shakespeare had a particularly noble or beautiful character; and some of our greatest writers have been men of unbalanced, childish, immature temperaments, full of vanity and pettiness. Of course a man must be interested in what he is describing; but I think that a man of a naturally great, wise, and lofty spirit is so disposed as a rule to feel that his qualities are instinctive, and so ready to credit other people with them, that it does not occur to him to depict those qualities. I am not sure that the best equipment for an artist is not that he should see and admire great and noble and beautiful things, and feel his own deficiency in them acutely, desiring them with the desire of the moth for the star. The best characters in my own books have been, I am sure, the people least like myself, because the creation of a character that one whole-heartedly admires, and that yet is far out of one's reach, is the most restful and delightful thing in the world. If one is unready in speech, thinking of one's epigrams three hours after the occasion for them has arisen, how pleasant to draw the man who says the neat, witty, appropriate, consoling thing! If one suffers from timidity, from meanness, from selfishness, what a delight to depict the man who is brave, generous, unselfish! Of course the quality of a man's mind flows into and over his work, but that is rather like the varnish of the picture than its tints—it is the medium rather than the design. The artistic creation of ideal situations is often a sort of refuge to the man who knows that he makes a mess of the beautiful and simple relations of life. The artist is fastidious and moody, feeling the pressure of strained nerves and tired faculties, easily discouraged, disgusted by the superficial defect, the tiny blot that spoils alike the noble character, the charming prospect, the attractive face. He sees, let us say, a person with a beautiful face and an ugly hand. The normal person thinks of the face and forgets the hand. The artist thinks with pain of the hand and forgets the face. He desires an impossible perfection, and flies for safety to the little world that he can make and sway. That is why artists, as a rule, love twilight hours, shaded rooms, half-tones, subdued hues, because what is common, staring, tasteless, is blurred and hidden. Men of rich vitality are generally too much occupied with life as it is, its richness, its variety, its colour and fragrance, to think wistfully of life as it might be. The unbridled, sensuous, luxurious strain, that one finds in so many artists, comes from a lack of moral temperance, a snatching at delights. They fear dreariness and ugliness so much that they welcome any intoxication of pleasure. But after all, it is clearness of vision that makes the artist, the power of disentangling the central feature from the surrounding details, the power of subordinating accessories, of seeing which minister to the innermost impression, and which distract and blur. An artist who creates a great character need not necessarily even desire to attain the great qualities which he discerns; he sees them, as he sees the vertebrae of the mountain ridge under pasture and woodland, as he sees the structure of the tree under its mist of green; but to see beauty is not necessarily to desire it; for, as in the mountain and the tree, it may have no ethical significance at all, only a symbolical meaning. The best art is inspired more by an intellectual force than by a vital sympathy. Of course to succeed as a novelist in England to-day, one must have a dash of the moralist, because an English audience is far more preoccupied with moral ideals than with either intellectual or artistic ideals. The reading public desires that love should be loyal rather than passionate; it thinks ultimate success a more impressive thing than ultimate failure; it loves sadness as a contrast and preface to laughter. It prefers that the patriarch Job should end by having a nice new family of children and abundant flocks, rather than that he should sink into death among the ashes, refusing to curse God for his reverses. Its view of existence after death is that Dives should join Lazarus in Abraham's bosom. To succeed, one must compromise with this comfortable feeing, sacrificing, if needs be, the artistic conscience, because the place of the minstrel in England is after the banquet, when the warriors are pleasantly tired, have put off the desire of meat and drink, and the fire roars and crackles in the hearth. When Ruskin deserted his clouds and peaks, his sunsets and sunrises, and devoured his soul over the brutalities and uglinesses and sordid inequalities of life, it was all put down to the obscure pressure of mental disease. Ophelia does not sob and struggle in the current, but floats dreamily to death in a bed of meadow-flowers.
October 21, 1888.
Let me try to recollect for my own amusement how it was that my last book grew up and took shape. How well I remember the day and the hour when the first thought came to me! Some one was dining here, and told a story about a friend of his, and an unhappy misunderstanding between him and a girl whom he loved, or thought he loved. A figure, two figures, a scene, a conversation, came into my head, absolutely and perfectly life-like. I lay awake half the night, I remember, over it. How did those people come to be in exactly that situation? how would it develop? At first it was just the scene by itself, nothing more; a room which filled itself with furniture. There were doors—where did they lead to? There were windows—where did they look out? The house was full, too, of other people, whose quiet movements I heard. One person entered the room, and then another; and so the story opened out. I saw the wrong word spoken, I saw the mist of doubt and distress that filled the girl's mind; I felt that I would have given anything to intervene, to explain; but instead of speaking out, the girl confided in the wrong person, who had an old grudge against the man, so old that it had become instinctive and irrational. So the thing evolved itself. Then at one time the story got entangled and confused. I could go no further. The characters were by this time upon the scene, but they could not speak. I then saw that I had made a mistake somewhere. The scaffolding was all taken down, spar by spar, and still the defect was not revealed. I must go, I saw, backwards; and so I felt my way, like a man groping in the dark, into what had gone before, and suddenly came out into the light. It was a mistake far back in the conception. I righted it, and the story began to evolve itself again; this time with a delicate certainty, that made me feel I was on the track at last. An impressive scene was sacrificed—it was there that my idea had gone wrong! As to the writing of it, I cannot say it was an effort. It wrote itself. I was not creating; I was describing and selecting. There was one scene in particular, a scene which has been praised by all the reviewers. How did I invent it? I do not know. I had no idea what the characters were to say when I began to write it, but one remark grew inevitably and surely out of the one before. I was never at a loss; I never stuck fast; indeed the one temptation which I firmly and constantly resisted was the temptation to write morning, noon, and night. Sometimes I had a horrible fear that I might not live to set down what was so clear in my mind; but there is a certain freshness which comes of self-restraint. Day after day, as I strolled, and read, and talked, I used to hug myself at the thought of the beloved evening hours that were coming, when I should fling myself upon the book with a passionate zest, and feel it grow under my hand. And then it was done! I remember writing the last words, and the conviction came upon me that it was the end. There was more to be told; the story stretched on into the distance; but it was as though the frame of the picture had suddenly fallen upon the canvas, and I knew that just so much and no more was to be seen. And then, as though to show me plainly that the work was over, the next day came an event which drew my mind off the book. I had had a period of unclouded health and leisure, everything had combined to help me, and then this event, of which I need not speak, came and closed the book at the right moment.
What wonder if one grows fatalistic about writing; that one feels that one can only say what is given one to say! And now, dry and arid as my mind is, I would give all I have for a renewal of that beautiful glow, which I cannot recover. It is misery—I can conceive no greater—to be bound hand and foot in this helpless silence.
November 6, 1888.
It is a joy to think of the way in which the best, most beautiful, most permanent things have stolen unnoticed into life. I like to think of Wordsworth, an obscure, poor, perverse, absurd man, living in the corner of the great house at Alfoxden, walking in the moonlight with Coleridge, living on milk and eggs, utterly unaccountable and puerile to the sensible man of affairs, while the two planned the Lyrical Ballads. I like to think of Keats, sitting lazily and discontentedly in the villa garden at Hampstead, with his illness growing upon him and his money melting away, scribbling the "Ode to the Nightingale," and caring so little about the fate of it that it was only by chance, as it were, that the pencil scraps were rescued from the book where he had shut them. I love to think of Charlotte Bronte, in the bare kitchen of the little house in the grey, wind-swept village on the edge of the moorland, penning, in sickness and depression, the scenes of Jane Eyre, without a thought that she was doing anything unusual or lasting. We surround such scenes with a heavenly halo, born of the afterglow of fame; we think them romantic, beautiful, thrilled and flushed by passionate joy; but there was little that was delightful about them at the time.
The most beautiful of all such scenes is the tale of the maiden-wife in the stable at Bethlehem, with the pain and horror and shame of the tragic experience, in all its squalid publicity, told in those simple words, which I never hear without a smile that is full of tears, BECAUSE THERE WAS NO ROOM FOR THEM IN THE INN. We poor human souls, knowing what that event has meant for the race, make the bare, ugly place seemly and lovely, surrounding the Babe with a tapestry of heavenly forms, holy lights, rapturous sounds; taking the terror and the meanness of the scene away, and thereby, by our clumsy handling, losing the divine seal of the great mystery, the fact that hope can spring, in unstained and sublime radiance, from the vilest, lowest, meanest, noisiest conditions that can well be conceived.
November 20, 1888.
I wonder aimlessly what it is that makes a book, a picture, a piece of music, a poem, great. When any of these things has become a part of one's mind and soul, utterly and entirely familiar, one is tempted to think that the precise form of them is inevitable. That is a great mistake.
Here is a tiny instance. I see that in the "Lycidas" Milton wrote:—
"Who would not sing for Lycidas? He WELL knew Himself to sing and build the lofty rhyme."
The word "well" occurs in two MSS., and it seems to have been struck out in the proof. The introduction of the word seems barbarous, unmetrical, an outrage on the beauty of the line. Yet Milton must have thought that it was needed, and have only decided by an after-thought that it was better away. If it had been printed so, we should equally have thought its omission barbarous and inartistic.
And thus, to an artist, there must be many ways of working out a conception. I do not believe in the theory that the form is so inevitable, because what great artist was ever perfectly content with the form? The greater the artist, the more conscious he probably is of the imperfection of his work; and if it could be bettered, how is it then inevitable? It is only our familiarity with it that gives it inevitableness. A beautiful building gains its mellow outline by a hundred accidents of wear and weather, never contemplated by the designer's mind. We love it so, we would not have it otherwise; but we should have loved it just as intensely if it had been otherwise. Only a small part, then, of the greatness of artistic work is what we ourselves bring to it; and it becomes great, not only from itself, but from the fact that it fits our minds as the dagger fits the sheath. The greatness of a conception depends largely upon its being near enough to our own conceptions, and yet a little greater, just as the vault of a great church gives one a larger sense of immensity than the sky with its sailing clouds. Indeed it is often the very minuteness of a conception rather than its vastness that makes it great. It must not be outside our range. As to the form, it depends upon some curious felicity of hand, and touch, and thought. Suppose that a great painter gave a rough pencil-sketch of a picture to a hundred students, and told them all to work it out in colour. Some few of the results would be beautiful, the majority would be still uninteresting and tame.
Thus I am somewhat of a fatalist about art, because it seems to depend upon a lucky union of conception and technical instinct. The saddest proof of which is that many good and even great artists have not improved in greatness as their skill improved. The youthful works of genius are generally the best, their very crudities and stiffnesses adorable.
The history of art and literature alike seems to point to the fact that each artistic soul has a flowering period, which generally comes early, rarely comes late; and therefore the supreme artist ought also to know when the bloom is over, when his good work is done. And then, I think, he ought to be ready to abjure his art, to drown his book, like Prospero, and set himself to live rather than to produce. But what a sacrifice to demand of a man, and how few attain it! Most men cannot do without their work, and go on to the end producing more feeble, more tired, more mannerised work, till they cloud the beauty of their prime by masses of inferior and uninspired production.
November 24, 1888.
Soft wintry skies, touched with faintest gleams of colour, like a dove's wing, blue plains and heights, over the nearer woodland; everywhere fallen rotting leaf and oozy water-channel; everything, tint and form, restrained, austere, delicate; nature asleep and breathing gently in the cool airs; a tranquil and sober hopefulness abroad.
I walked alone in deep woodland lanes, content for once to rest and dream. The country seemed absolutely deserted; such labour as was going forward was being done in barn and byre; beasts being fed, hurdles made.
I passed in a solitary road a draggled ugly woman, a tramp, wheeling an old perambulator full of dingy clothes and sordid odds and ends; she looked at me sullenly and suspiciously. Where she was going God knows: to camp, I suppose, in some dingle, with ugly company; to beg, to lie, to purloin, perhaps to drink; but by the perambulator walked a little boy, seven or eight years old, grotesquely clothed in patched and clumsy garments; he held on to the rim, dirty, unkempt; but he was happy too; he was with his mother, of whom he had no fear; he had been fed as the birds are fed; he had no anxious thoughts of the future, and as he went, he crooned to himself a soft song, like the piping of a finch in a wayside thicket. What was in his tiny mind and heart? I do not know; but perhaps a little touch of the peace of God.
November 26, 1888.
Another visitor! I am not sure that his visit is not a more distinguished testimonial than any I have yet received. He is a young Don with a very brilliant record indeed. He wrote to ask if he might have the honour of calling, and renewing a very slight acquaintance. He came and conquered. I am still crushed and battered by his visit. I feel like a land that has been harried by an invading army. Let me see if, dizzy and unmanned as I am, I call recall some of the incidents of his visit. He has only been gone an hour, yet I feel as though a month had elapsed since he entered the room, since I was a moderately happy man. He is a very pleasant fellow to look at, small, trim, well-appointed, courteous, friendly, with a deferential air. His eyes gleam brightly through his glasses, and he has brisk dexterous gestures. He was genial enough till he settled down upon literature, and since then what waves and storms have gone over me! I have or had a grovelling taste for books; I possess a large number, and I thought I had read them. But I feel now, not so much as if I had read the wrong ones, but as if those I had read were only, so to speak, the anterooms and corridors which led to the really important books—and of them, it seems, I know nothing. Epigrams flowed from his tongue, brilliant characterisations, admirable judgments. He had "placed" every one, and literature to him seemed like a great mosaic in which he knew the position of every cube. He knew all the movements and tendencies of literature, and books seemed to him to be important, not because they had a message for the mind and heart, but because they illustrated a tendency, or were a connecting link in a chain. He quoted poems I had never heard of, he named authors I had never read. He did it all modestly and quietly enough, with no parade, (I want to do him full justice) but with an evidently growing disappointment to find that he had fallen among savages. I am sure that his conclusion was that authors of popular novels were very shallow, ill-informed people, and I am sure I wholly agreed with him. Good heavens, what a mind the man had, how stored with knowledge! how admirably equipped! Nothing that he had ever put away in his memory seemed to have lost its colour or outline; and he knew, moreover, how to lay his hand upon everything. Indeed, it seemed to me that his mind was like an emporium, with everything in the world arranged on shelves, all new and varnished and bright, and that he knew precisely the place of everything. I became the prey of hopeless depression; when I tried to join in, I confused writers and dates; he set me right, not patronisingly but paternally. "Ah, but you will remember," he said, and "Yes, but we must not overlook the fact that"—adding, with admirable humility, "Of course these are small points, but it is my business to know them." Now I find myself wondering why I disliked knowledge, communicated thus, so much as I did. It may be envy and jealousy, it may be humiliation and despair. But I do not honestly think that it is. I am quite sure I do not want to possess that kind of knowledge. It is the very sharpness and clearness of outline about it all that I dislike. The things that he knows have not become part of his mind in any way: they are stored away there, like walnuts; and I feel that I have been pelted with walnuts, deluged and buried in walnuts. The things which my visitor knows have undergone no change, they have not been fused and blended by his personality; they have not affected his mind, nor has his mind affected them. I don't wish to despise or to decry his knowledge; as a lecturer, he must be invaluable; but he treats literature as a purveyor might—it has not been food to him, but material and stock-in-trade. Some of the poetry we talked about—Elizabethan lyrics—grow in my mind like flowers in a copse; in his mind they are planted in rows, with their botanical names on tickets. The worst of it is that I do not even feel encouraged to fill up my gaps of knowledge, or to master the history of tendency. I feel as if he had rather trampled down the hyacinths and anemones in my wild and uncultivated woodlands. I should like, in a dim way, to have his knowledge as well as my own appreciation, but I would not exchange my knowledge for his. The value of a lyric or a beautiful sentence, for me, is its melody, its charm, its mysterious thrill; and there are many books and poems, which I know to be excellent of their kind, but which have no meaning or message for me. He seems to think that it is important to have complete texts of old authors, and I do not think that he makes much distinction between first-rate and second-rate work. In fact, I think that his view of literature is the sociological view, and he seems to care more about tendencies and influences than about the beauty and appeal of literature. I do not go so far as to say or to think that literature cannot be treated scientifically; but I feel as I feel about the doctor in Balzac, I think, who, when his wife cried upon his shoulder, said, "Hold, I have analysed tears," adding that they contained so much chlorate of sodium and so much mucus. The truth is that he is a philosopher, and that I am an individualist; but it leaves me with an intense desire to be left alone in my woodland, or, at all events, not to walk there with a ruthless botanist!